Change of use
I READ recently that the UK candle industry is worth nearly £2 billion a year (roughly one quarter of the total assets of the Church Commissioners). Who would have guessed that it’s so big ? It isn’t all accounted for by the popularity of Christingle services, nor the modest revival in celebrations of Candlemas on 2 February.
Most candles are not bought for religious purposes at all. A quick count in our dining room on Boxing Day revealed 22 candles; so we are doing our bit for the candle economy. Traditional church-candle manufacturers such as Charles Farris find their products used nowadays not just in ecclesiastical settings, but domestically, to give elegance and atmosphere. Candles seem rarely to be used solely for their original purpose of providing a source of light.
My grandparents would find the delight we take in candles very puzzling. They would also be astonished by what we pay for them. They did have candles in their homes, but never on display: I can still picture the drawers where they were kept out of sight. These were always Price’s candles (were there any others for domestic use then?), lit only when there were power cuts. My grandparents were born in the closing decades of the 19th century, when many homes were still dependent on candlelight for illumination.
The arrival of electricity rendered candles (and gas lamps, too) obsolete. No wonder Price’s diversified into engine oil in the early 20th century. The older members of my family always associated candles with poverty. They had no desire to light them except in necessity.
NOR did they associate them with religion, except to be suspicious of them in such a context. Both sets of grandparents were Cornish Methodists. One lot were devout; the others identified with a chapel that they didn’t attend. If those chapels had candles, they would have been kept securely out of sight. Much later, I recalled seeing an Advent ring in the Cornish Methodist chapel where my parents were married. It would have been unthinkable in my childhood. Candles in church were signs of superstition, lit by those who did not have the word of God to illuminate their lives.
It’s fascinating how that has been swept away. It was not as if it was a peculiarly Nonconformist conviction. Plenty of Evangelical Anglicans would have thought candles Romanist, too. But, if candles on the holy table are still eschewed, there seems little objection anywhere to Advent wreaths or Christingle services. And carols by candlelight are sung everywhere — the candles lending atmosphere, perhaps because we still have a rather Victorian concept of Christmas.
Signs of the times
THIS Christmas, I attended a carol service voluntarily for the first time since my ordination, more than 44 years ago. It was in our parish church, and beautifully done. Three sets of our immediate neighbours were present. (I can’t take any credit for that, but at least having a bishop living so close hasn’t put them off.) The appeal of carol services seems much greater than I recall at the time of my ordination. Crib services and Christingles pull in the crowds, whereas I sense that midnight mass is not the draw that it was.
An American friend, now sadly deceased, used to keep her Christmas decorations (which were extensive) up until Candlemas. It was her intention to create a talking point. She liked to remind people that the greater Christmas season lasted 40 days, concluding only with the presentation of Jesus as a first-born Jewish male in the Temple, 40 days after his birth, in accordance with Jewish law. Our rituals and customs can teach the faith, but only if we know why they exist.
IN THE best-ordered churches (at least, in my opinion), the crib remains until 2 February. Pope John Paul II always made his last visit to the crib in St Peter’s Square after celebrating Candlemas, after which the crib was dismantled. Whether Pope Francis has continued that tradition I don’t know, but I hope so.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve become fonder of Candlemas, perhaps because I’m gradually drawing nearer to the age of Simeon and Anna, whose light blazes briefly in Luke’s Gospel. It’s a feast for the elderly. Simeon and Anna were the sort of old people who didn’t travel far, but were always found going about their religious duties. I’ve been thinking of them now that I’m found more frequently in a congregation rather than presiding or preaching. Occasionally, my wife and I are still the youngest present.
The advanced age of some congregations is lamented in some parts of the Church of England. Perhaps, though, we ought to value our aged congregations a bit more.
Keepers of the flame
ON A recent visit to Oxford, I met Canon Michael Bourdeaux, a fellow Cornishman. I’ve known of him and his work supporting Christians in Eastern Europe all my life. It was a delight to talk with him. My mind went back to my first visit to the Soviet Union, as it then was. My endeavours to discover an Orthodox church that was open were met with obfuscation. I was told that only elderly women went to church.
The contrast with the present day in Russia, where the number of churches and monasteries has returned to pre-1917 levels, is stark. But who kept the faith in the intervening years? Old people such as Anna and Simeon. Let’s light a candle for all the Annas and Simeons of the C of E this Candlemas.
The Rt Revd Graham James was Bishop of Norwich from 1999 to 2019.